Shanna Knights
Credit: Courtesy of Shanna Knights

Research director, Ballard Power Systems

When Shanna Knights was earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemical engineering at UBC during the 1980s and early 1990s, she got mixed reactions for hoosing a career path that would make use of her aptitude for science and math. “People I met casually, they would be surprised,” Knights remembers. “People who knew me weren’t surprised.”

In 1988, Knights joined BC Research, a private organization that had previously been part of a government agency, the British Columbia Research Council, as a research engineer. Wanting to become an expert and do leading-edge work, she looked to fuel cell pioneer Ballard Power Systems Inc. When Knights started at the Burnaby-based company in 1995 as a research engineer, it was just launching trials in buses and stationary power. “There was a lot of learning around that and how fuel cell durability was affected in real-world applications,” she explains.

Today, Knights—the holder of 13 patents, with several more pending—is a top expert in proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell durability. “We’ve had huge gains in durability since I’ve started, and I think I played a role in that,” she says of Ballard, which has 630 employees and contractors worldwide and sells its products everywhere from the U.S. to China. Besides leading the company’s research, she works with its university partners, “trying to foster and grow the academic fuel cell activities in Canada, but more focused on B.C. in terms of supporting fuel cell commercialization.”

The Vancouver Island native, who was raised not to believe in gender-based roles, says there’s still a perception that women must work harder to succeed equally in traditionally male careers. “Because of that, sometimes the promotion path can be a bit slower,” says Knights, who gives many keynote speeches on fuel cell technology and is an industry reviewer for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Annual Merit Review of hydrogen and fuel cell projects. “A woman may be more likely to drop into an alternate career path where they can succeed more easily.”

How can we get more women into STEM?

Besides creating female role models through mentoring, it’s crucial to raise awareness of the benefits that women bring, Knights says. Studies show that companies with more female executives do better financially, she observes. “Teams with women tend to be more innovative, more creative and high-performing.”